Citizenship gamble may cost Canada's Olympic hockey team
Winnipegger Nigel Dawes has his scoring groove on in KHL, but he's now a Kazakhstan citizen
Nigel Dawes is having the sort of season in Russia that would have landed him a spot on the 2018 Canadian men's Olympic team roster.
In his seventh season with Astana Barys of the Kontinental Hockey League, the 32-year-old from Winnipeg has checked in with an eye-catching 18 goals in his first 18 games.
But there is one big problem: Dawes became a Kazakhstan citizen two years ago in order to play for its national team and therefore he can no longer perform for Canada.
Dawes made the decision because Astana felt like home and he figured his days playing for Canada were behind him. The left wing, like many others, didn't foresee NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's disappointing decision to halt the league's participation for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in February.
Two years ago Dawes, Dustin Boyd and Brandon Bochenski, along with defenceman Kevin Dallman of Niagara Falls, Ont., decided to play for Kazakhstan at the 2016 world championship. The 36-year-old Dallman and Boyd, also from Winnipeg, would have been strong candidates for the Canadian Olympic team, too.
Kazakhstan, ranked 17th in the world, failed to qualify for the Olympics last summer.
"I don't have any regrets about my decision to play with Kazakhstan," Dawes said in an email sent to CBC Sports. "It gave me an opportunity to play in the world championship, which I would never have got, and also a chance to qualify for the Olympics.
"Now with the NHL not going, of course, it bothers me not having that chance. But it also bothers me that we weren't able to qualify with Kazakhstan [last year] when we had the chance as well.
"I think most hockey players and fans will be sad not to see the NHL in the Olympics this year. I never thought about playing in the Olympics coming from Canada and knowing how many good players we have but that all changed when I had the opportunity to play for Kazakhstan. That was the first time I had a legitimate chance to play in the Olympics.
"Unfortunately, in my case, it was a perfect storm with all the scenarios that could've played out. The most important scenario would've required me to know what was going to happen in the future. At the time, nobody thought Bettman was going to be this stubborn and take the chance away from the players."
What makes Dawes ineligibility even more difficult to deal with is the fact that his new Barys Astana linemates, Linden Vey of Wakaw, Sask. and Matt Frattin of Edmonton, also are strong candidates to make the Canadian Olympic team.
The on-ice familiarity the three have with each other would have been a big advantage for Canada.
- Nigel Dawes scores a shootout winner for Kazakhstan at 2016 world championship:
Dawes lost his old, trusty linemates of Bochenski and Boyd in the off-season. The 35-year-old Bochenski of Blaine, Minn., decided to retire. Boyd accepted an offer to play for Moscow Dynamo.
But with Vey and Frattin, who played together for the AHL Stockton Heat last season, Dawes has enjoyed a rocket start.
"This season was a big question mark for our team as there were lots of changes in the off-season," Dawes said. "Everyone was curious to see how I would do without Brandon and Dustin, as well as how our team would be with some new imports and some younger players. I was lucky to be able to find good chemistry with Linden and Matt right from the start and that's helped the three of us get off to the start that we have.
"Getting confidence early can go a long way and that's definitely helped, but we were also getting lots of chances and our power play was really hot. With any good streak, you need to get some good bounces along the way as well."
Dawes had plenty of good bounces and good times as a teenager. He won a WHL championship and Memorial Cup in his rookie season with the 2001-02 Kootenay Ice, was drafted in 2003 in the fifth round by the New York Rangers and concluded his junior career with seasons with goals of 47, 47 and 50.
He also led Canada with six goals in six games when he settled for a silver medal in the 2004 world junior tournament and followed that up with world junior gold the following year.
Dawes decided to depart his up-and-down, back-and-forth world between the NHL and AHL after the 2010-11 season. That year saw him play nine games with the Atlanta Thrashers, four with the Montreal Canadiens and a combined 86 regular-season and playoff outings in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves and Hamilton Bulldogs.
Even thoug he finished the regular season with 14 goals in 19 games for the Bulldogs, Dawes was looking for more stability and an increased role.
Boyd and Dawes decided to give the KHL a try together. They were teammates with the 2009-10 Calgary
Flames, and with the Canadiens and Bulldogs the following season.
Their search landed them in Kazakhstan and Dawes goal-scoring totals swelled from 16 in his first season to 20, 26, 32, 31 and 36 last year.
Dawes' last goal was the 200th in 387 KHL regular-season and playoff games.
"It might sound a little cliché but when I first came to the KHL I had made peace with not playing another game in the NHL," Dawes said. "I was okay with that and I also think it helped me mentally to be able to fully commit to playing in the KHL.
"I've watched some guys come over and they have one foot in and one foot trying to get back. For most of the guys, it doesn't go very well for them. That doesn't mean it doesn't work out for a few though. I am really happy in the KHL and the way my career has gone since I've been here."